Can you tell me about your practice? How do you get started on a piece of work?
There’s usually a colour sense, an aura or a visual characteristic I’m interested in achieving in a painting. This can come from a previous painting or body of work, or from something in everyday life – an object, texture or feeling, for example. Sometimes I only reach an understanding of this ‘sense-aura’ by putting paint down on the surface. In these cases, I really do have to start with a colour and that’s it!
I’ll either paint a skeleton of marks and build from there over a long period of time, or a painting may come together in one or two sittings of intense attention and construction. With the skeleton approach I try to establish the character of a painting from a series of connected marks of colour across the surface. Then I apply overlapping and adjacent colour to push and pull the emerging ‘characteristic-shape’. At the moment these paintings are producing ‘creature-beings’, but I’m actually just as interested in working against the emerging formal qualities as with them.
In the smaller paintings I’m achieving a kind of ‘space-non-space’ in recent work, by applying a gentle gradation of colour and what I call a ‘painted thing’ over the top. I’m really fascinated by the possibility of the content of a painting holding more than one (even multiple) readings, so I encourage the ‘painted things’ to sit between looking like actual things and nothing at all, so they operate a ‘both and neither’ character. It’s also worth noting I like finding my own terms for ideas generated in the paintings as this seems the best way for me to understand and develop my practice.
Who are your biggest influences?
I’m influenced by various painters and thinkers, depending on what’s happening in the practice. Because painting is a time-based activity and ideas change over time, my influences are always evolving – my paintings direct me towards other painters and ways of thinking that require my deeper engagement.
I tend to return to painters, for example I’m currently looking at Edouard Vuillard again. I’m mesmerised by his use of colour and pattern to compartmentalise interiors, figures and landscapes. His paintings always activate a longing in me to take colour mixing further and break up the picture plane into harmonious and complementary portions. I long for the painted space he achieved in his paintings, but I’m replacing recognisable content with awkward and irregular forms and marks. In this vein, I’m reminded of a recent online lecture I attended on Cezanne, when the speaker highlighted the painter’s propensity for making tentative but not weak paintings. I think I’m aiming for assertive tentativeness, using the colour-sense of Vuillard’s paintings.
Like lots of painters today, I am also hugely influenced by Amy Sillman who shines a light on process and the relationship between painter and painting. I especially admire the way she writes and thinks about painting and how her engagement with process is imbued with a psychoanalytic sensibility similar to my own way of working.
Can you talk about the role that subconscious dialogue plays within your paintings?
The dialogue I have with my paintings echoes Sigmund Freud’s levels of consciousness – the unconscious, the preconscious and consciousness. Freud actually challenged the term ‘subconscious’. He said it was unclear whether it referred to the unconscious (the largely inaccessible parts of the mind) or the preconscious (the information contained below the surface of consciousness). I also find the term difficult to use and prefer the ‘preconscious’ in the context of painting.
I believe we move through and around levels of consciousness all the time – they all play a part in activity, communication and, of course, in painting. I am interested in accepting my unconscious as being present in the developing relationship between myself and a painting. It fascinates me that my unconscious is active although I am not privy to what it contains. Also, because I have a tendency to anthropomorphize my paintings, a psychological exchange between us is inevitable as well as productive.
The majority of my work is made in the fluid state of the preconscious. I largely work on a painting whilst having a sense of what is happening but not a complete or conscious understanding. This is productive too; my paintings are often made in a reverie state where I am locked into making intuitive and ‘a priori’ moves. Through looking, writing and speaking about the work I am able to bring aspects of the painting to a conscious level (out of the preconscious) and make decisions on how to proceed.
How important is material in your work?
Material is central. Paint and the surface form the foundation of the work and all the other engagements follow. I usually work on a heavy calico surface, sized with three coats of rabbit skin glue. I love engaging with the raw surface by preparing a painting in this way where the calico to operates as both colour and surface.
Material is also subject matter because I don’t work from images or objects in any direct way. I am seduced by paint and the feeling of applying and moving it around on the surface, and paintings develop from the feelings I have in the act of making a painting. I’m also really excited by the possibility of paint itself having agential qualities and communicating something about the painting through its unique visual characteristic as paint, through the way it’s applied and how it reacts with other colours on the surface.
What is your most important tool? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio?
I write process notes in a notebook which I have with me at all times in the studio. If I don’t have my notebook I feel I’m not able to work properly. I write before, during and after the painting process which aids my understanding of what’s happening in the paintings. Writing acts as a lever, bringing an understanding of both the process and the painting out of my preconscious into consciousness. I know this sounds complex and analytic, it’s not really – writing is simply a way of comprehending thoughts and actions in painting, because looking alone doesn’t give me a deep enough insight.
In a recent online book launch with Oakville Galleries, Allison Katz commented on the relationship between painting and writing in a way that resonated with my own practice. She discussed how notes made during the activity of painting can have a number of purposes where the different logics that arise through writing can either be passed back to the paintings or developed externally. In my case, notes certainly help me develop more ‘formed writing’ which gains its own agency away from the paintings the more I write. This manifestation intrigues me to the extent that my recent writing has been working against the paintings as if carving an autonomous and existential platform of engagement ‘about painting’ but not ‘as painting’.
Can you give us a book recommendation that has been important in your practice? And tell us why it’s important.
I currently loving Per Kirkeby’s ‘Writings on Art’, a text that contains different approaches to writing which are all connected to his painting practice. Kirkeby writes in such a lyrical manner where his observations, ideas and synopses are underpinned by a deep experiential relationship with paint media and process. The translation from his native Danish to English allows Kirkeby’s writing to take on a spiritual resonance where his thoughts become poetry to a painter.
I’m also reading Henri Bergson’s thoughts on memory and duration, understood through the eyes of later philosopher Gilles Deleuze. I love the idea that the past is a ‘thing-in-itself’ that the present moves through. In this way, the present is a constant becoming, an act that is perpetually moving through something else. The past and present co-exist as simultaneous operating entities and in painting terms this means they have to be managed together. Amy Sillman often references Bergson and, like her, I find myself coming back to him over and over, usually though Deleuze.
Finally, is there anything new coming up that you would like to tell us about?
As part of the Teaching Painting organisation, I am giving a talk on my practice on Wednesday 28th April. Details to follow on Instagram @jennyrutheden
We are co-curating a group exhibition at Oceans Apart with painter Zac Bradley, to start on 30th April. The exhibition is called Lovers Lane and features painters whose work luxuriates in form, immediacy and the poetics of a Dionysian approach to painting. Follow us on Instagram @oceansapartgallery and go to the website www.oceansapart.uk to find out more.
As part of my PhD research I am curating an exhibition of painters’ work that embodies a psychological relationship with process. I intend to tour this exhibition over the coming years and produce a publication alongside. More details to follow on social media.
I am also in the process of starting a new project with fellow painter Rebecca Sitar, exploring painting as a poetic an ontological activity. Again, details to follow on social media.
Images all courtesy of the artist:
Wardrobe (2020) Oil on calico, 37 x 25cm
Space-time (2020) Oil on calico, 37 x 25cm
Sky-space (2020) Oil on calico, 108 x 90cm
Quasi-subjects (2021) Oil on calico, 108 x 90cm
In the sea skies, children play (2019) Oil on calico, 144 x 122cm
Space-time mini (2020) Oil on calico, 25 x 17cm